The Dutch documentary filmmaker Klaartje Quirijns was at the Toronto International Film Festival with her compatriot and subject Anton Corbijn, when the leading rock photographer-turned-feature film director was invited to a party by a famous record producer. Corbijn asked Quirijns, a friend who was making a film about him, to come along, so Quirijns found herself sharing a limo with Corbijn and sundry models.
He has a tendency to flee into the superficial, because that’s safe for him
“Anton leaned over and said, 'I'm not here of because who I am, I'm here because of what I do',” recalls Quirijns. “He defines himself by his work and that intrigues me.”
The resulting documentary, Anton Corbijn Inside Out, is an unusually insightful portrait of an artist who subsumes himself to the personality of others, whether it's his famous photography subjects (U2, Clint Eastwood, Depeche Mode) or the characters in movies such Control and The American. Klaartje Quirijns (pronounced Klart-cha Queer-ines) captures not just Corbijn's creative methods, but the alchemy between a private artist and his public works.
“I never planned on making this film – it really happened accidentally,” explains Quirijns, who at the age of 45 is 12 years younger than Corbijn. “Anton was a friend of mine and when I moved to London he was moving back to the Netherlands five or so years ago. We knew each other from an exhibition so he showed me around London and he told me that other people were making a film about him and he wanted my opinion. I told him that the one thing it lacked was a proper conversation with him and he asked me to do that conversation with him and out of that a film was born. I never realised that for the next four years I would follow him around the world.”
Quirijns was right about the need for a defining interview with Corbijn, but it didn't come easily. One of the fascinating currents in Anton Corbijn Inside Out is how the director pursues her subject, tolerating his friendly bonhomie for only so long before asking a probing question or requesting genuine self-analysis. At one point Quirijns asks Corbijn, something of a lone workaholic, why he has trouble forming deeper connections with the people around him, and he demurs by suggesting they step inside.
“He has a tendency to flee into the superficial, because that's safe for him. He has more depth to him than he shows. I was interested in another side of him that I saw, but it's one he's not very comfortable with. I told him at one point, 'If we continue like this it's going to be an extremely superficial film',” says Quirijns. “For a long time I thought the film was going nowhere, because he would talk in a superficial way and that's not my way. In the end I complained and he gave it to me. In the end I got what I was looking for.”
In a way Quirijns gets from Corbijn what she wants, which is the same transaction that happens between him and his photography subjects or principal actors – “although Anton would never confront anybody,” adds Quirijns. One of the film's strengths is that when Quirijns shoots Corbijn at work she shows little regard for famous bystanders. At one point the camera pans to a car and a window comes down and there's U2's Bono cracking a joke. Not even the pious and ever-present talking head of the music documentary genre can slow down Quirijns, and there's good reason for that.
“I don't know who a lot of these people are,” admits Quirijns. “Normally I'm dealing with gunrunners, dictators, or other people who are fighting about something political or trying to break a cycle of injustice.”
Quirijns grew up in the strong lineage of Dutch documentary filmmakers which stretches back to Joris Ivens and Bert Haanstra, while her own producer previously worked with Johan van der Keuken. It was when she moved to New York, where she would hang out in the office of Albert Maysles, that she made 2005's The Brooklyn Connection, about a Balkans immigrant equipping a guerilla army from America, and 2007's The Dictator Hunter, which focused on efforts to prosecute Chad's former dictator Hissene Habre.
“I started out adoring the verite cinema, but I think for me now there's not just one form,” says Quirijns. “If you have a subject that lets you stay away from interviews that's great, but on the other hand interviews can be really interesting.”
During a scene on a train, the always on the move Corbijn answers Quirijn's questions while looking out of the window, as if he doesn't want to acknowledge that anyone else is present. This is typical of Corbijn, the son of a minister whose childhood memories tend to solitary experiences that became his work when he discovered the darkroom.
“It's not easy for him to talk about his life, but I also felt that he was ready to talk about it,” notes Quirijns. “He was at a vulnerable point in his life – his father had died – and he was moving from photography to film, so always thought he was ready for this in a way and that because he was always working and travelling that he needed a moment of reflection on his life and who he is.”
Since the film was finished Corbijn has opened up his life somewhat. He now has a girlfriend he lives with, who didn't recognise the man in the documentary the way his family did. Quirijns also shows, underlined with deft editing, how the protagonists of Control (the late Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis played by Sam Riley) and The American (George Clooney's hitman) are clearly related to the director.
“Anton's still looking for his own identity and he's trying to make sense of it by photographing other people and now making films. There's this one thing that Bono says, which is that Anton is always photographing himself,” Quirijns observes. “That's such an interesting approach and if you look at Anton's films they're always about loners.”